I am indebted to Jennifer Soucy (aka Lady Guenièvre de Monmarché) for wondering aloud about a recipe from the 17th century. The recipe is from a collection by Sir Kenelm Digby of his favourite pies, roasts, stews, jams, mead and cakes. Entitled The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened, the culinary notebook was first printed in London in 1669. The fascinating part is that in Digby’s recipe for Excellent Small Cakes, he instructs the cook to “take three pound of very fine flower well dryed by the fire …”
It appears that Digby’s cakes are typically dense and tough when made today. Many modern redactions significantly alter the original proportions of ingredients in an attempt to lighten the texture of these cookie-like cakes. Having read about kate flour, Jennifer was reminded of Digby’s instruction to dry the flour well by the fire before using, and confessed that she had never followed this step in the procedure. Could this be the missing link?
I was intrigued. The implications are far-reaching … were the Elizabethans well-versed in the heat-treatment of flour? The food historian Alice Ross has described how baking in the 17th and 18th centuries often involved lengthy preparations:
“It must have required a few days just to get the ingredients ready – to pound the sugar into fine crystalline form, grind spices, stone raisins, cut imported candied citron fine, to cleanse the flour with several siftings, and to dry it at the hearth to remove excess moisture.”
It is easy to imagine that bakers were primed to pay specific attention to the level of moisture in the flour they were using. Did they discover that some recipes produced better results according to how well the flour had been dried? Looking through other recipes for cakes in Digby’s collection, it is noticeable that the only recipe requiring ‘flower well dryed by the fire’ is the recipe for ‘Excellent Small Cakes’. If he felt the need to include this instruction in a single recipe, he presumably considered it to be an important detail.
You can probably guess what happened next. Yup – I have just made two batches of Digby cakes, one using kate flour (far) and the other using untreated flour (near).
The dough made with kate flour was less easy to work with than that made with untreated flour. I flattened it with my hands and then rolled it to about 1/4 inch thickness. I used a round cookie cutter to cut circles and picked them up by squeezing the edges slightly as I lifted them. The untreated-flour dough was moister. It rolled out better and the circles were less fragile. I was able to transfer these more easily than the kate-flour circles to a lightly greased baking sheet.
Although the untreated-flour dough certainly scored more points in terms of handling, the kate-flour ‘cakes’ (pictured on the right) won hands down when it came to taste and texture. They rose slightly higher than the untreated-flour cakes, had an open cake-like crumb and were meltingly delicious to eat. The untreated-flour cakes (pictured on the left) were dense, tough and chewy – hardly what I’d describe as either ‘excellent’ or ‘small cakes’.
Excellent Small Cakes
My scaled redaction of an original recipe by Sir Kenelm Digby
450g / 16 oz cake (or kate) flour
225g / 8 oz caster sugar
113g / 4 oz dried currants
225g / 8 oz butter, softened
3 tbsp + 1 tsp double cream
1 egg yolk
2 tsp grated nutmeg
3 tbsp dry white wine
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C. Lightly grease a large baking sheet.
Combine the flour, sugar and currants in a large bowl and whisk to mix thoroughly.
Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the flour mixture. Beat to combine.
In a separate bowl, lightly combine the cream, egg yolk, nutmeg and wine. Stir into the flour/butter mixture to make a dough.
Flatten the dough with your hands on a clean surface. Roll to a 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into circles with a round cookie cutter and place on the baking sheet. Prick several times with a fork.
Bake in the centre of the oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Leave to cool slightly on the baking sheet before transferring to a wire rack.
When cool, the cakes may be iced with sugar. I didn’t ice my cakes, but I did find some references on sugar icing that provide recipe ideas from contemporary sources.